Thirty years on, domestic and international opinion is more divided than ever about the purpose of the Falklands War. At the time there were a few doubters, but not enough to matter. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher regarded the British armed forces as being akin to a mission from God, and most of her press and public agreed. So, crucially, did the armed forces themselves.
Both Ian Gardiner’s The Yompers and Down South, the journal of the naval helicopter observer Chris Parry, display a sophisticated grasp of South American politics in the early 1980s.
The Argentinean junta, and its leader, General Leopoldo Galtieri, were domestically unpopular in 1982, partly thanks to their fondness for flying dissident civilians up to 10,000 feet in helicopters and then pushing them out of the cargo doors. (Chris Parry tells a story of transferring two Argentine prisoners in his Wessex from one British ship to another. The two men were mysteriously panic-stricken and refused at first to board the helicopter. Only later did Parry discover why.) In an attempt to recover popularity, Galtieri’s junta decided to satisfy a longstanding Argentine grievance about the Falklands/Malvinas by forcibly seizing them.
Galtieri expected little or no belligerent response from the United Kingdom. Thatcher’s government had recently carried out large defence cuts. Even with an up-to-strength military, 8,000 miles was a very long way to send soldiers, sailors and aviators to fight a much larger occupying army for an infertile South Atlantic archipelago whose main islands were roughly the same size as Shetland but with one-twentieth of its population.
In fact, as our troops appear to have understood more keenly than most, the issue quickly became one of the survival of two unpopular governments. Galtieri could clearly not afford to fail – doing so would add incompetence and national humiliation to his record of economic catastrophe and mass murder. But neither could Thatcher, who in early 1982 ranked lower in the opinion polls than any British leader since Charles I, and who would have to face a general election within the next two years.
So the Royal Marines and the helicopter crews assembled and set forth for the bottom of the planet. In retrospect, the result seems to have been a foregone conclusion. From a British perspective, it seemed that way at the time to everybody but Tony Benn and Vanessa Redgrave.
Gardiner and Parry, however, are understandably irked by the notion that their campaign was little more than an elevated exercise: trained professional killers against half-starved conscripted waifs from the slums of Buenos Aires.
Much of the Argentine army and all of its air force and navy was also professional, as 258 British body bags would prove. The Args (“Argies” seems to have been a British tabloid confection, and the fighting men had a healthy contempt for the saloon bar warriors who wrote headlines for the Sun) were entrenched. They knew what was coming, they had plenty of time to prepare, and they were only 250 miles from their own mainland.
Each of these two British officers’ books adds colour, humanity and no little wit to the story of how Galtieri’s forces were dislodged. In The Yompers, Gardiner takes his readers longside the Royal Marines of 45 Commando, sailing south on RFA Stromness in April 1982, and watching feature films to pass the time. Their favourite was soon established: The Blues Brothers, which seemed to be playing round the clock in the galley, mess, recreation area and wardroom. Its songs and soundbites became 45 Commando’s soundtrack to the war. Over the following weeks they exchanged the surreal catchphrases of John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd like lucky charms (although not, apparently, Elwood Blues’s classic line “We’re on a mission from God”).
Chris Parry saw action first. His helicopter helped to put the SAS onto the previously insignificant landmass of South Georgia in a snowstorm, and then to take them off again. He spotted and depth-charged an Argentine submarine, making safe the sea roads to South Georgia.
Then Parry and his crew flew on to San Carlos Water at the western edge of the main island of East Falkland, where Ian Gardiner and his Royal Marines had landed and were preparing to march on the capital, Port Stanley.
They landed with little opposition on the ground. The Argentine High Command was convinced that the British would try to knock down the front door and burst straight into Stanley itself. They did not expect an invasion 120 miles away. Further diversions – such as the bloody firefight at Goose Green – helped to distract from the unloading of men and materiel onto the peat bog around San Carlos.
The enemy air force, the one arm of the Argentine military to emerge with credit from that undeclared war in the South Atlantic, was of course quickly alerted. Its missiles, including the celebrated Exocet, sank several British ships and would have sunk more if they had all exploded.
From a tactical point of view, the destruction of the conscripted cargo vessel Atlantic Conveyor was most damaging, as the Conveyor took with her to the bottom of the sea most of the Chinook and Wessex helicopters which were intended to leapfrog soldiers between San Carlos and Stanley.
With those helicopters gone, the men had to yomp. That Royal Marine term was quite unknown to British civilians before 1982. It is now in the Oxford English Dictionary, but you will not need to look it up.
The peat-bog yomping was hard and wet for the first 100 miles. The real action began west of Port Stanley, which is sheltered by a dozen rocky hills more than 1000 feet high. Those hills served as natural fortresses, and each one of them had to be taken and occupied.
Gardiner led the successful night-time assault on one of those redoubts – and miraculously captured it without loss. When the last mountain fell, so did the 74-day Argentine governance of the Falkland Islands.
They surrendered Port Stanley without a fight, partly because they knew a lost cause when it stumbled bruised and bleeding down from Wireless Ridge, and partly and honourably to avoid a bloodbath in Port Stanley which would have reduced still further the township’s small civilian population.
Then our boys came home. Margaret Thatcher was re-elected in a landslide, and General Leopoldo Galtieri’s junta collapsed. We in the United Kingdom were supposed to stand taller in the eyes of the world.
Most of us were flattering ourselves. But not the young marine mentioned at the end of The Yompers. He, after the fall of Stanley, approached at twilight the collective grave of 18 of his fellows and thinking himself unobserved “took his rifle from his shoulder and placed the muzzle on his boot, taking up the position of ‘resting on arms reversed’: the traditional position of vigil of the warrior over the graves of his fallen comrades.
“There he stood for some minutes, then returning his weapon to his shoulder and replacing his Green Beret, he quietly disappeared off into the thickening night.”
He was not flattering himself, or anybody else.